A Memoir

By Frank McCourt

Scribner. 367 pp. $26

Reviewed by Nina King

It's been about three years since the enigmatically titled Angela's Ashes captured the hearts of American readers. In the United States, according to the publisher, Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up Irish and miserable sold 2.5 million copies in hardcover alone -- a figure made even more interesting because the author was a complete unknown, an English teacher for many years in New York city schools and a hanger-on at such Greenwich Village "literary" bars as the Lion's Head and White Horse Tavern. His closest brush with celebrity before Angela's Ashes was his friendship with the Irish singing group the Clancy Brothers. And Frank and his bar-owner brother Malachy at one point performed in a musical review based in part on their horrible childhood.

In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt describes a kind of abject poverty, of all-pervasive squalor, that most Americans find difficult to imagine. Though his parents, Angela and Malachy, had met and married in Brooklyn, they returned to live in Limerick, a dreary provincial capital in southeast Ireland, when Frank, oldest of four surviving brothers, was 4. Those were hard times in Brooklyn in the '30s -- but even harder times in Limerick, especially when McCourt's father was into the booze. On nights when he came home stewed, having drunk his weekly paycheck, he would order the children out of their beds to join him in singing the infinitely sad ballads of Irish patriotism, pledging themselves to die for Ireland at the ripe age of 5 or 6. There is something magical as well as nightmarish in those family scenes in Angela's Ashes. Others are merely grotesque -- such as McCourt's unforgettable description of himself as a hungry child, licking the last traces of grease from a newspaper in which an order of fish and chips had been wrapped.

Then the elder McCourt abandoned his family altogether, and things really got tough in the squalid Limerick lane where 11 families shared a single toilet.

Frank, who is smart and who conceals a liberating love of language and literature under his pimply, perpetually horny adolescent exterior, can see only one hope of fulfilling his dreams: America. The last few pages of Angela's Ashes overlap with the first few of 'Tis, in which McCourt spends his first night back in the New World with a pleasant "bad woman." Later he stands on the deck of the ship that has brought him from Cork with the wireless officer, "looking at the lights of America twinkling. He says, `My God, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn't this a great country altogether?' " And, in the middle of the otherwise blank page that follows, McCourt responds: " `Tis."

'Tis further echoes Ashes as it follows McCourt from his first job in America -- "setting up for functions" at the Biltmore Hotel, through three years in the army in Germany, then to a variety of manual jobs on the docks, before he can approach the fulfillment of his dream of college, talking his way into NYU despite his lack of a high school diploma. But the second book is unsatisfying in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. Maybe it's just too much: too many of the long, twisting run-on sentences that are McCourt's approximation of Irish speech; too many cute or glamorous names for sex acts -- "The Excitement" (orgasm), "interfering with myself" (masturbation); too many repetitions of McCourt's litany of woes -- his longing for respectability and a blond wife with good teeth, clashing with his love of books, and with his weakness for bars, booze and Bohemia.

McCourt is still a great storyteller, though I doubt anyone could remember so many details of drunken evenings 30 years ago. But what seemed fresh and poignant in Angela's Ashes here seems a little stale. In fact, in many places `Tis reads like a collection of barroom stories -- good ones, told by a master, but barroom tales nonetheless: the story of how his wedding cake stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue, the one about the side of beef in the men's lavatory, the chilling sketch of the Jewish soldier in postwar Germany who realizes he has just left his laundry to be washed at Dachau.

McCourt also retains his ear for language, as in this passage where he imagines Limerick's reaction to his rise in the world: "University? How in God's name did you ever get into a university, you who left school at fourteen and never set foot inside secondary school? They might say in Limerick I always had the makings of a swelled head, that I was too big for my boots, that I had a great notion of myself. That God put some of us here to hew wood and draw water and who do I think I am anyway after my years in the lanes of Limerick?"

Indeed, this may be a good time for McCourt to leave memory lane for a while to seek other subjects as worthy of his prodigious talents.

Nina King is editor of Book World.